by Sora Junko (空 純子)
illustrated by marourin
Please note that this is the third story in the Grim series. You may want to read the previous chapters here and here before reading this one, but this story does stand on its own.
Among dirty, smelly cities, Prague stood out as one of the dirtiest and smelliest. But tonight, as they bumped and jolted over the badly maintained roads in their slow quest towards a place to rest for the day, there was a strange atmosphere to the stench that James Grim couldn’t quite identify.
Maybe it was the bloody truck.
After leaving the ‘haunted’ house in the wilds of what used to be known as Russia, James and Sebastian had made their way back towards civilization in search of replacement parts for the precious motorcycle. Thankfully they had found an old truck in the mansion’s large garage, and were able to load James’ motorcycle onto the flatbed.
The truck had seemed at first glance to be merely a lonely, rusted hulk hunkering in a room big enough for several vehicles, but when Grim had tried the key, it had started – reluctantly, but it started, and it had gotten them this far.
The truck was every bit the piece of crap it looked like, though. It belched blue and black smoke from the tailpipe and they had had to add oil to the engine every few hours along their way for fear it would seize. Even when the road was smooth, the truck rattled, shook and jolted along so violently that James wondered if it would simply shiver to pieces when it finally gave up and lost whatever stubborn spirit had held it together so long.
Of course, it also seemed to be made up of one solid piece of steel placed on top of a pair of axels and bald rubber tires, so perhaps when it was ready to give up the ghost it could have one last hurrah of usefulness as a battering ram.
But for all that James had come to loathe and curse the truck for every bone-jarring kilometre of road, it had at least gotten them this far without actually dying on them.
That would be more satisfying if it weren’t for the fact that James would have rather been almost anywhere but here. Unfortunately, Prague was where James had purchased his motorcycle, and therefore Prague was where he was most likely to find a way to fix it. Plus, it hadn’t been out of his way.
Sebastian had no such qualms. He was, in fact, glued to the passenger side window and even more cheerful than the usual default level Grim had become accustomed to over the last few weeks of travelling together.
The reason for that became clear a moment later as Sebastian turned around and beamed at James, eyes shining like stars. “James,” he said. “Do you see all the lights and things? It’s Christmas Eve.”
“What?” James stared at Sebastian for a moment, then actually took another look around as they jolted to a stop in front of a hotel. The building itself was festooned with little twinkling lights – apparently this place was rich enough to afford the fuel for an electric generator, a good sign. There was also a pine wreath on the door.
The snow that blanketed the sidewalks and road suddenly took on a different meaning, as James counted up the dates. It wasn’t as though he paid that much attention, since holidays generally didn’t include him.
It was Christmas. No wonder something had seemed…off.
“So what?” he growled, killing the engine and opening the door to get out of the cab.
Shockingly, Sebastian’s bright expression didn’t even falter. “So what? It’s Christmas, James. You’re a Christian, too. Don’t you like Christmas?”
Twitch twitch twich.
Then Sebastian dropped the biggest bombshell of them all.
“Jesus’ birthday is tomorrow!”
The vampire flinched so hard he missed a step and banged his toe on the curb. The steel-toed boot rang like a bell and he stumbled up onto the sidewalk, colliding with a woman who was hurrying past. There were a few people out tonight, more than he would have expected. Perhaps leaving parties that had run late or busy enough to feel the need justified the risk of being outside at this hour. Obviously there wasn’t a vampire in this area, or that would never happen.
Well, no vampires other than him.
But that wasn’t what he was focussed on right at the moment. He reached out and grabbed Sebastian by the collar, yanking him closer and nearly pulling him right off his feet. “Stop that. Don’t say that name. Now who says I’m a Christian anyway?” he hissed.
Sebastian swallowed visibly and for the first time his expression faltered. “Well you…you work for the Vatican, you know,” he said softly. “I assumed, especially since you’re a–”
Grim cleared his throat, loudly. “Shut up. You assumed wrong, kid,” he growled. With a jerk, he let Sebastian go and the boy stumbled back a step, reaching up to rub his throat with an almost sheepish expression.
“Sorry James, I–”
James blinked. The quavering, female voice took him a moment to place, and then he turned to face the woman he had bumped into when he stumbled.
“What?” he asked.
The woman was dark skinned, wrinkled and stooped with age and holding a thick woollen shawl wrapped tightly around her head and shoulders.
She was glaring at him.
“You bump into a lady and don’t apologize? You nearly knocked me off my feet! And then you treat your son like this? Shame on you, sir,” she snapped.
My SON? Grim thought, choking. His mood was souring by the minute, and it was starting to seem like a conspiracy. He shook it off and glared back at the woman impatiently, though he kept his lips almost closed as he spoke to hide his fangs. “What of it?”
Her dark eyes flashed. “Did your mother teach you no manners?”
“I’m sorry ma’am,” Grim growled. “My mother was well-versed in manners, but apparently none of it transferred to me. Now be about your business!”
“James,” Sebastian hissed, tugging on James’ coat. “Please, let’s just go inside. I’m very sorry, ma’am, he’s…”
“Best idea I’ve heard all day,” James said, turning away from the angry old lady and heading for the door to the hotel.
“And on Christmas Eve, too!” the woman huffed in disbelief. “Curse you!”
“Bah! Humbug,” Grim snarled. The effect of his exit was somewhat spoiled when he hit the threshold and hovered there for a moment before Sebastian grabbed his hand and invited him into the building by the simple expedient of hauling him inside.
James reached back and slammed the door behind him with a satisfying crash.
There was a group of young girls near the door, and as James and Sebastian entered the building one of them tossed her shoes over her shoulder, nearly hitting the pair. James dodged the shoe and said nothing as the girls cheered and congratulated the girl for something. Apparently the way the shoes had fallen meant something good, but James couldn’t imagine what.
“It’s a Christmas party, James,” Sebastian said excitedly. “Look at all those apples!” At one table, another group of people were cutting apples and exclaiming over the results. Who were these superstitious fools, anyway?
James grunted. “If you want to eat one, ask them,” he said. “But this isn’t our party. We just want a room.”
His words didn’t seem to dim Sebastian’s enthusiasm, but the boy stuck close to his side as James ignored the festivities all around them and tracked down the innkeeper to arrange for a room. It took only a few moments, and James was careful to keep his fangs hidden during the transaction. No sense in ruining it for everyone. Soon they were headed upstairs.
The room wasn’t large, but it had a bed that was fortunately free of bedbugs, a washing basin, and even a locking door. The best part, though – and you can bet this had cost James a pretty penny – was the fireplace.
Not only was there already a fire crackling in the hearth when they arrived, but there was a very comfortable looking easy chair set in front of said fire that practically had James’ name on it. He sat down before he’d even shaken the snow off of his coat or taken his hat off.
Sebastian wandered about the room a moment. James had noticed that the boy had a way of doing that which he’d never seen before. The boy would explore every corner of a room, reaching out to touch anything that interested him, even picking it up and deliberately replacing it in such a way that no one would know it had been moved.
There was still that spring in his step, an eagerness that James couldn’t understand. So what if it was Christmas? What did that have to do with them? They had no families to share it with, no turkeys to eat or presents to give. Let the people have their bit of fun, sure, but leave James out of it.
Sebastian splashed a bit of water on his face, then rubbed it with the towel, yawning. For the most part, the shape-shifter had converted over to James’ nighttime schedule in the weeks they’d been travelling, but James had noticed that he didn’t sleep well. For all that Sebastian maintained that irrepressible optimism and happiness – even when it wasn’t Christmas – the boy suffered from vicious nightmares. He tossed and turned, and from what few words he had cried out in his sleep, James was convinced that he was dreaming about vampires.
Whether it was the horrific medical scene they had recently witnessed, or the memories of being raped and bitten back in France, James didn’t know. Perhaps both.
He didn’t like to think that the face Sebastian saw in his dreams was Grim’s own, but when he awoke during the day and listened to Sebastian crying out, the thought never failed to cross his mind regardless.
“Take the bed,” James said. “It’s pretty small. You can putter around during the day while I’m asleep and enjoy your Christmas if you want.”
Lord help him, that was apparently the right thing to say. Sebastian’s eyes lit up again and he beamed. “Really? Thank you, James!” he said, practically bouncing towards the bed. “I don’t ever get presents, but I like to look at what other people get – look in through windows and the like. I thought I’d sleep right through it this year.”
He shed his coat and ratty shoes – they hadn’t found anything in his size in Luiza’s closet – and crawled into bed.
Feeling oddly worse having heard that, James grunted and turned towards the fire. “Good then,” he muttered. “Glad you’re happy.”
“I am,” Sebastian said, but his tone was wistful. And a few minutes later, the tenor of his breathing told the vampire that he was asleep.
Silence descended on the room, broken only by the crackle of the flames. It was soothing, and Grim settled deeper into the chair, allowing himself to be hypnotized by the ancient dance of the fire over the logs. It filled his vision with the twisting, leaping riot of red, orange and yellow.
After a time, he heard a sound. It was a metallic rattle, followed by a soft slide and thump, like the footstep of someone trying to be silent. But no person could sneak up on a vampire who wasn’t asleep.
But the door’s locked, passed through James’ mind even as he got to his feet and swung around, his hand on the butt of one of his pistols. Only that fact stopped him from drawing, since the only person who could be walking around was Sebastian.
Then he drew anyway, since Sebastian was still asleep in the bed and a tall, angular figure stood poised over him, back bent and hands out to curl around the boy’s shoulders.
“Get the fuck away from him,” James snarled.
The pale face that looked up at him made him cock the gun, even as he felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. What the…what the fuck?
“Jacob?” he whispered in a strangled voice. “You’re dead.”
The vampire glided towards him, lips spreading to reveal sharp canines. Jacob Marley was exactly as he had been the last time James had seen him, over four hundred years before. The same long buttoned coat. The same straight hair caught in a tail and falling to his waist, black as a raven’s wing. The same pale blue eyes, like icicles in his sun-starved, sallow face.
The only difference were the chains wrapped around him. His body was bowed with them, and they rattled with every step.
The window had bars, and the door was still locked. How had he gotten in?
“Yes, James,” Jacob hissed. “I am dead, thanks to you. I was a monster, like you, and now I’m a ghost, trapped between life and death for eternity.”
James could feel the temperature drop in the room. Sebastian shifted restlessly, and his breath steamed. So the chill wasn’t just from the memories this face was bringing flooding back to him.
“We’re both trapped between life and death,” James growled, pointing the gun straight at his old friend’s forehead. “We’re vampires.”
Jacob shook his head. “Once I was proud, vital, so alive,” he said, his voice wracked with longing. “You know what I mean – how alive you feel when the blood slides over your tongue. Now I hunger, every night, and I can never quench my thirst.” He raised his hand, and it passed right through the muzzle of James’ gun, leaving a rim of frost on the barrel.
“Mother of Jesus!” James hissed, stumbling back a step in his surprise. His back hit the mantel of the fireplace and he froze, realizing he was liable to step right back into the fire if he moved back any further. “What in God’s name are you?” He rarely took the Lord’s name in vain, and the words burned his tongue as they escaped his lips. But he was so startled, he barely noticed.
Jacob lowered his hand, his mouth pulling down sorrowfully. “I know it’s hard for you to hear this, James, but I’ve been sent here to warn you. You have to believe me when I say that I am dead.”
James hesitated, then lowered the muzzle of his gun. “Say what you have to say,” he said. He was sure that if his heart could beat, it would be beating a hole in his chest. He would have thought he was merely dreaming, but it was so vivid! He couldn’t quite convince himself that a dream was all it was.
Jacob sighed softly. “So proud, as always,” he said. “James, tonight you will be visited by three ghosts. They are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, of Christmas Present, and of Christmas Yet to Be. You must listen to them, or great disaster will visit you before the start of the new year.” James felt the chill as the ghost moved closer, Jacob’s face looming huge in his vision.
Jacob’s deep voice shivered through him like a drumbeat. “And when you walk the earth as a ghost, your chains will be heavier than mine. Your endless hunger will be even fiercer! Please, my friend, you must change your ways. You must not remain a monster.”
James wanted to step back, but there was nowhere to go. In a near-panic, he shoved away from the mantel, and felt a deep, soul-chilling cold as he passed right through the apparition. “This is madness!” he hissed, moving into the middle of the room as he pointed the gun at Jacob. He tried to tell himself that his hand wasn’t shaking.
“We were young when you and I met. We killed hundreds together. But I’ve changed! I hunt monsters like we used to be – like you were when I killed you!” James cried, forgetting that Sebastian lay sleeping only a few feet away.
Jacob shook his head and drifted backwards. The rattle of the chains was loud and discordant in James’ ears. “The fact that you believe you’ve become righteous only shows how far you’ve sunk. How deep you’ve fallen. Please James…don’t make the same mistake I did.”
The ghost passed into the fireplace, sinking right into the wall. James leaped forward on impulse, reaching with his free hand even as Jacob grew translucent and began to fade. “Wait, Jacob!”
He let out a breath, sinking back against the back of the chair. “Damned bloody dream,” he growled, shaking his head.
So it had been nothing but a dream after all, and he’d gotten so worked up about it! If he’d actually jumped out of his chair, he probably would have dived right into the fire.
A clock tower tolled quite nearby and James jumped again. Whispering a curse, he rose and moved to the window in time to see half the city out on the streets, all headed in the same direction. The bells were tolling midnight, but he could hear the ringing of church bells as well. Midnight Mass.
Well, good for them.
Then he heard someone clear their throat, and whirled to face an intruder for the second time that night.
This time, the figure wasn’t someone that James recognized. It was a woman, dressed in flowing white robes that put James in mind of a bishop’s accoutrements. The gun was jerked from its holster instinctively, but he didn’t actually cock it. What in hell was going on here?
The woman was tall and willowy, her face seeming somehow at once youthful and incredibly aged, though James couldn’t put his finger on why. Blonde hair spilled from under a tall white hat, and James wondered if perhaps that was what made him think of Catholic bishops. There was a kind of glow about her that made her stand out in the darkened room, as if she was lit from within.
“Who the hell are you?” James snapped belligerently. He was sick and tired of this weird night, and it was probably all a dream, anyway. Sebastian still slept soundly, despite his raised voice.
She moved towards him on feet so light James had to look down sharply to see if she was actually touching the floor. “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” she said. Her voice was dulcet, a pleasant contralto that made James’ mouth water. But he smelled no blood, only dust and ash, and the heat from the fire.
He lowered the gun and holstered it, watching her warily. “So you’re one of the ones Jacob warned me about,” he said. “Well I’m not going to play your games, woman. Get going.”
She smiled and shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry, James. I can’t do that. But I’m only here to show you some things. Surely you can indulge me.”
He felt her slim hand slip into his own and stiffened. He hadn’t intended to let her come so close. Her fingers were so slender, they felt like brittle twigs in his hand, not threatening at all. Or maybe icicles. There was none of the warmth of life in her body.
He sighed. It was only a dream, anyway, though it felt so real. What was the harm? “Fine,” he growled. “Show me what you have to show me.”
Nothing happened, and yet the world changed around him. He felt a wash of dizziness come over him as the room whirled in a shifting kaleidoscope of colour, though he felt like he was standing on a floor as solid as a rock. The cold hand of the ghost felt as solid as ever in his, and he felt himself squeezing tightly as it went on. She didn’t make a sound, and the bones didn’t break under his fingers.
Then it all stopped, and he looked around in confusion. It was another bedroom, much like the hotel room he had just come from, and it was vaguely familiar. “What is–”
“James, come look at these figures for me, will you?”
James whirled around, completely forgetting about the ghost as her fingers slipped from his hand. The voice had been all-too familiar, a voice that had commanded instant obedience, as well as respect.
His father sat at a desk surrounded by a pool of lamplight, papers spread all over. He had James’ dark hair, though it was neatly trimmed and quite short. An equally neat beard adorned his chin. His fingers were slender like the vampire’s, stained with ink from the very ledgers he was writing in.
James took a startled half-step forward, but then felt as much as saw a shadow pass by. He caught a glimpse of another figure moving towards his father and made a soft choking sound in his throat.
It was him.
The other James was twenty years old, the spitting image of himself now, centuries later.
But that made sense, because James had just realized exactly where he was. Alexander Grim had been a successful merchant, and travelled all over Europe plying his trade. By this time, both his wife and son frequently joined him on his travels, as the young James began to learn the art of trade so as to one day inherit the company.
James had loathed figures and charts, but had been a fair shake at negotiations. Beautiful as his mother, and more charismatic than his bookish father, James had quickly learned how to make a deal that was favourable to both sides, especially himself. It had even earned rare praise from the older Grim.
In Prague, they had stumbled upon some undervalued merchandise. They had rented this townhouse, and James had brokered a deal with the merchant that he hoped would bring them a substantial profit. But that profit would never be realized.
He whirled to face the ghost as the two Grims, father and son, bent over the figures. “Why did you bring me here?” he demanded.
The ghost only smiled with that same sorrowful look in her eyes. “Just watch,” she whispered.
“They can’t hear me, can they?” James asked as he turned back to watch himself. He saw the ghost shake her head out of the corner of his eye.
“Look, they’re right!” the younger James suddenly exploded, slamming his fist down on the table with such force that a pen clattered to the floor. “I’ve gone over those figures three times!”
“Son, you’re not looking closely enough,” Alexander Grim’s voice was calm, but growing more and more impatient. “You need to learn to attend to details. God is in the details!”
“I hate details! Why doesn’t anyone ever look at the big picture?” James snapped. “That’s what’s really important. Who cares if it’s a penny off when you make thousands of Euros? It doesn’t matter!”
“It does matter–”
The door slammed open as James walked out, grabbing his coat as he went by. Despite a growing unease, the older James hurried after him, down the steps, and out into the swirling winter night.
A few drunks stumbled past them on their way back from some Christmas party or another, but for the most part the streets were deserted, locked up tight against the dark. There was a blizzard, and it was bitter cold, but the younger James only pulled his coat closer around himself and huddled in the doorway.
Unwilling to go forward, unwilling to go back.
A red jewel flared in the young man’s cupped hands as he lit a cigarette. He smoked it, and James watched himself calm down. But the vampire’s unease only grew.
“Go inside you stupid, stubborn mule!” he shouted at himself, waving a hand in front of the young man’s eyes. Young James only went on smoking, beginning to shiver.
“He can’t hear you,” the ghost said, her voice carrying easily over the howling wind. “You can’t change the past, James.”
James rounded on her, stalking towards her and shaking a fist in her face. “Then why did you bring me to see this?”
“Because, you need to understand what came before,” she said. Behind him, there was a cry of fear, but James didn’t dare turn around. His mind’s eye supplied every detail anyway. “Before you can understand what comes after.”
Despite every ounce of will he could bring to bear, James turned and watched.
The vampire was cloaked in black, hood pulled down low. James had never seen his face, and the young man had already made his doomed attempt to flee. He was caught, slammed up against the icy stone wall of the townhouse.
“Delicious,” the vampire mocked him, his mouth rimmed with red and teeth dripping with it.
“Stop this,” James whispered, echoed by his younger self.
Neither the ghost, nor the vampire, heeded their pleas.
It was both torturous and mercifully quick. Within seconds the younger James had been drained of blood and had had a few drops of blood poured into his mouth from the slashed arm of the cloaked vampire. Moments later, the monster melted into the swirling snow, and James lay as if dead in the snowbank a few feet from the door, slowly being covered by the blanket of white.
James turned back towards the ghost. “Enough, please,” he murmured, shaken. It had somehow been worse to watch than it had been to experience. Worse than any hunt he had witnessed in the centuries since.
“Enough?” the ghost replied. “Not nearly enough, James.”
The world swirled around them again, but steadied quickly. Now James was standing back in the bedroom. His parents were sitting on the bed, hugging each other. His mother Elizabeth was sobbing into his father’s shoulder, while the man sat stony faced and silent.
“Why?” Elizabeth sobbed. Even in her grief she was beautiful, her crying almost an art form with the handkerchief held just so and her eyes glimmering with tears. “Why did he go out at night? What did you say to him!”
“I had no idea he could be so rash,” Alexander whispered. The blood was gone from his face, but his eyes were still dry. “But Elizabeth, he could be alive. He might have just spent the night somewhere and will return today.”
“It’s almost dusk,” Elizabeth spat, shoving herself away from her husband and pointing a trembling finger towards the window. “Why would he have taken so long? You know he has to be dead, Alex!”
James stared in growing horror. He had never seen this, of course, but his mother’s alternate grief and wrath, and his father’s stoicism didn’t surprise him.
What did surprise him was how strongly they truly felt for him.
Grief welled up inside him as he heard the desperate pounding at the door. He heard his own voice. “Mother! Father! Please let me in!”
“James!” Elizabeth exclaimed, jumping to her feet. “Oh James!”
“Elizabeth!” Alexander cried. He reached for her, but his fingers caught only air as James’ mother flew down the stairs and threw open the door. James ran as if pulled inexorably in her wake and Alexander thumped down the stairs behind them.
The young man on the stoop was covered in snow and his coat was wrapped tightly around himself. He was shivering and his lips were blue from the cold. “M-Mother, I’m s-sorry. I spent the night in a b-barn. I…”
“Oh my darling boy,” Elizabeth cried, reaching for him. “You can’t believe how much we worried about you.”
“Mother, no!” Shouted James to no avail, but he could hear his own father’s voice even louder.
“Elizabeth, no!” Alexander cried. But it was too late.
The distraught woman reached for her beloved son and wrapped her arms around his slender and shaking form. The embrace drew him over the threshold.
“Thank you, mother,” the young man whispered.
And with one bite, he tore her throat out.
Blood fountained and the brand new vampire drank thirstily. James stood helplessly in the middle of the stairs, staring in horror as the blood painted the walls and stained his mother’s beautiful lavender dress. He was aware of his father staring in equal horror right behind him, but the watcher didn’t turn, didn’t even try to tell him to run.
There was nowhere to go, and it was too late for him, anyway.
James was aware that he was shaking, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. His younger self drank his fill, and then looked up, animal lust in his eyes as he gazed up the stairs, through the invisible James, and right at his father.
“Father, did you grieve for me?” the monster whispered with gory lips.
“Yes, son,” Alexander said softly. “As I do still.”
There was a blur, almost too fast even for James to follow, and the vampire was on Alexander. The man went down without even a cry.
He hadn’t even tried to escape.
James turned to his left and saw the ghost standing there, watching the carnage with impassive eyes. “Please ghost,” he pleaded, hating himself for the display of weakness, but unable to bear this any longer. “I’ve put this behind me. I’m not a monster like this anymore! Why are you torturing me with this?”
She turned to him, and the world swirled again. “Have you really put it behind you?” she asked.
The smacking sounds of the monster drinking Alexander Grim’s blood disappeared, but was replaced with the screams of a young blond woman he and Jacob had taken turns with one night. It had taken her hours to die.
James closed his eyes and covered his ears. “Stop this!” he screamed. “I’ve changed! I’m not like this anymore! Stop this now!”
The sounds changed again, to a more masculine tenor of scream. James didn’t open his eyes, afraid to recognize the face of another victim.
Even more terrified that he wouldn’t recognize him, that he was just one of a parade of hundreds that he’d killed and forgotten.
“Changed, have you?” the ghost whispered in his ear as the screams disappeared, replaced by the patter of running feet. James struck out towards the voice, but hit nothing. Despite himself, he saw the scene now in front of him.
Jacob Marley fled down an alley, and was confronted by a high stone wall. He turned, hissing, his teeth bared and sharp. “Why are you doing this, James?” he cried. James could see that he was injured, limping. Wounds such as that would close quickly, but not quickly enough. “We’ve been partners for a hundred years!”
Two sets of feet hurried down the alley towards the vampire. James was in the lead, his own fangs bared. In the hunter’s eyes, the older James saw a lust he had seen before.
It was the same lust James had displayed right before he had slaughtered his parents.
Stunned by the realization, James watched in silence as he stalked down the alley towards his former friend. “I’m different now,” the younger vampire growled. “I’m not a monster anymore.”
“You’ll always be a monster,” Jacob hissed. “Don’t you remember? The hunts we had? The kills we made!” He reached towards James, his blood-streaked hand trembling. “Don’t be afraid, James. We’ll rule Hell together, whatever that God soldier says.”
The third man was dressed in white robes, a crucifix clutched in his hands. He had the zeal of true faith in his eyes and it was hard to tell from the way he was holding the crucifix who he was protecting himself from. Probably both of them. “Strike, James!” the priest exclaimed. “Strike now, before he tempts you!”
James couldn’t avert his gaze as his younger self plunged the stake deep into his friend’s heart.
Jacob fell to the ground, and the younger James allowed the stake to fall from nerveless fingers. Were those white flakes snow, or was Jacob already beginning to turn to ash? James was finally able to turn away, and he saw the ghost standing beside him, watching the scene impassively. “Enough. Please,” he whispered.
“As you wish.”
He let out a sigh of relief and rose to his feet, turning to check on Sebastian. With the vividness of the dream, he imagined he had to have been tossing and turning at the very least, if not crying out. He hoped he hadn’t disturbed him, since he wasn’t particularly interested in explaining himself.
There was someone in the bed with Sebastian.
They were under the blanket, the larger man covering the boy with his body. The intruder was only visible as a mass of dark hair from behind. James heard Sebastian cry out in fear – a sound he was well-acquainted with – and saw the larger figure flash fangs just before biting down into Sebastian’s throat.
Another cry, and by this point James was seeing red.
He hissed territorially, like a cat, and sprinted across the room. He reached out to tear the monster from Sebastian. “Get the fuck off him you–”
His hand passed right through.
“No…” James whispered, a horrible realization coming to him. The vampire lifted his head at that moment and James saw his own face, lips red with Sebastian’s blood.
James took a few hasty steps back, looking around for the ghost. It wasn’t over, after all. Was he still caught in the dream?
Sebastian was in the bed, but he was also standing at the window. The boy smiled when their eyes met. “Hello James,” he said. “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present.”
James couldn’t have said he was surprised. “So, the second of three is here to torture me,” he growled, trying to ignore the sounds of passion from behind him. Sebastian was making soft whimpering sounds in the back of his throat.
James had come to enjoy hearing those noises over the last few weeks, but now they sounded like fear.
The ghost’s smile widened. “Not to torture you, James. We’re here to help you. And what could be nicer, but to watch you with your lover engaged in beautiful lovemaking?”
Wincing at the sarcasm James was sure he could hear, he found himself turning to watch again, sensing as much as seeing Sebastian walk up to stand beside him. The blanket had fallen down and there was nothing left to the imagination.
They made a good pair, and for a moment James smiled. He himself didn’t actually look much older than Sebastian, though he was considerably taller and muscled. It was lean muscle, though. James was slender, though Sebastian was just plain underfed, even still. He looked small and vulnerable in Grim’s grasp, and the vampire’s mouth watered at the sight of Sebastian’s pale face and reddened mouth, opened in an ‘O’ as he gasped with pleasure.
Grim thrust two fingers deep into the boy’s body and Sebastian cried out again. This time it didn’t sound afraid and James began to relax. Sure, he sometimes lost control over himself and bit Sebastian, but it wasn’t every time, and the boy seemed to be all right with it.
If he really had a problem with it, he’d leave, after all. James wasn’t forcing him to stick with him – it was Sebastian who had insisted on staying, following him around for weeks and then insisting he was going to be his sidekick or something.
Then, as Grim shifted forward, sliding his cock deep into Sebastian’s body, the boy slipped his arms around the vampire’s neck. Moaning deep in his throat with pleasure, Sebastian leaned up to kiss him.
Grim turned his face away from the kiss, grabbing the boy by the shoulders and pushing him back down again. “Stop that,” he growled, giving a harder thrust with his hips that brought another cry to Sebastian’s lips.
The watcher swallowed faintly, feeling a faint swell of shame inside him – which wasn’t helped when the ghost standing beside him clucked his tongue. “Not too nice, are you?”
“No one ever said I was nice,” James said, though without much heat. He folded his arms and glared at the passionate scene in front of him as the pace of the thrusts increased. Grim bit at Sebastian’s skin again and again as he thrust mercilessly, holding the boy’s arms down against the bed.
Sebastian writhed and cried out, and James could hear both pain and pleasure in the boy’s sounds, both fear and passion. Why does he put up with this? James thought in growing dismay as he watched the small blood flowers blooming all over the boy’s chest and throat.
“No, no one ever said that,” the ghost agreed.
James glanced at him sharply as the two lovers moved to their near-simultaneous completion, Sebastian’s cries peaking as ecstasy won out over the discomfort he was certainly feeling. “I have a question for you, ghost,” James said.
The ghost glanced at him, eyebrows rising towards his sandy-coloured hairline. “Ask away, James. I’ll answer if I can.”
James clenched his fists against his upper arms, his eyes narrowing. The sounds from the bed had quieted and he paid them no mind. “How can you stand here and pretend to be Sebastian? Sebastian’s not dead – he’s right over there. This whole thing you’ve been showing me happened last night. So you can’t possibly be Sebastian, can you?”
The ghost laughed. It was so much like Sebastian’s bright, cheerful laugh that it was almost painful to hear. “You’re right, I’m not Sebastian,” he said. “But I thought this form might please you. How about this?” In a blink, Jacob Marley was standing before him, not bound in chains, but strong and vital and fairly glowing with a recent feeding.
“Or does this ease your mind more?” Suddenly he was a tall, willowy man, glowing white from within.
Then he was Sebastian again, grinning up at James cheekily. “Does it really matter what I look like?”
“I guess not,” James muttered.
Sebastian was disentangling himself from the covers and Grim’s tired grasp. “Where are you going, kid?” Grim asked irritably, catching the boy by the hand.
Sebastian just turned to smile at him. “Just going to clean up a bit James. I’ll be right back.”
Grim grunted something noncommittal and withdrew his hand, and Sebastian went into the small water closet adjoining the room, closing the door behind him.
To James’ surprise, he found himself following the boy. He passed right through the door and found the boy leaning on the washbasin, his eyes shut tightly, his breathing rapid and shallow.
“What’s wrong with him?” James exclaimed in concern, reaching for the boy’s shoulder, but again it passed right through with no reaction.
“What do you think, James?” the ghost asked softly. In stark contrast to his attitude thus far, his voice had shifted into a sorrowful tone.
With shaking hands, the boy wet a towel and began to rub at the wounds all over his chest, arms and neck. Thanks to James’ vampire saliva, most of the small bites were already closed, leaving nothing behind but a bit of blood. Sebastian winced as he scrubbed at the blood on his still-healing throat.
Suddenly James saw Sebastian in a way he had never seen him before. He saw the weakness, the pallor he had always assumed was simply a hold-over from the boy’s hard life on the streets. And now he understood that it was the pale skin of a boy under too much strain as the blood servant of an over-demanding vampire.
It made him feel sick to his stomach.
Sebastian dropped the bloody towel into the basin, swayed and caught himself, then sank to the floor in a graceless motion.
Half-kneeling, half sitting on the floor, Sebastian covered his eyes with his hands and began to shake in earnest.
James felt a knife stab into his heart as he watched, but this time he didn’t even try to turn away. “Does he do this every time?” he whispered, almost to himself.
“Maybe, maybe not,” the ghost said. “Do you really need me to tell you?”
There was no need to answer that question. James turned to the ghost, swallowing a lump of horror in his throat. “Why does he stay then? Why does he do this to himself? I’m not forcing him to stay–” doubt forced him to add, “–am I?”
“Why don’t you keep watching,” the ghost said as Sebastian finally picked himself up off the floor. “And see if you can figure it out for yourself.”
James couldn’t argue with that. He watched as Sebastian rinsed out the towel as best he could, squeezing pink water out of the rough terry-cloth and hanging it up again. Then he leaned on the basin for a moment, as if girding himself for some task.
After a few seconds, he straightened, and James saw a bright smile spread across his face as Sebastian stepped out of the water closet and moved back towards the bed. “All done,” he said brightly, hopping into bed with Grim once again. The vampire muttered and tugging him close, but to James’ new perspective, he saw that the gesture was far more possessive than affectionate.
But it was what James had seen in Sebastian’s eyes that left him speechless.
In those blue eyes, so familiar to him and so naked, he had seen love.
More than that, and most damning, James had seen hope.
Hope that James would soon come to appreciate him for more than a light snack and fuck before bedtime? Or maybe hope that one day, James would simply start to treat him like a human being, if he was just cheerful enough, compliant enough, loyal enough.
James was crushed by shame. “What have I done?” he whispered. “Dear Lord, what am I doing?” The words were close enough to a prayer that they blistered his lips.
The lamps were dimming, and the bed seemed suddenly far away, hard to see in the growing darkness. Outside, somewhere distant, the clock struck two o’clock.
“Ghost,” James said, turning to look for the faintly glowing boy. “Ghost please, what do I do now?”
But there was no one there. James turned in a circle, feeling a cold wind stir his hair and coat. There was no hotel room, no uneasy lovers nestled in an embrace.
He was standing in a graveyard.
The wind whipped up and its chill sliced right through James’ coat. Though he hadn’t been much bothered by the cold in hundreds of years, he pulled his collar up and close around his face.
“What the hell is this?” he muttered. He couldn’t recall ever being in this particular cemetery before, though after a few thousand zombie killings in a lifetime, one boneyard started to look pretty much like another.
A soft exhalation of breath made him turn around. It seemed to drop the temperature another ten degrees and a flurry of snow blasted him in the face as he turned. He shivered, and drew his coat even more closely around himself, but it was futile.
The sound was like the death rattle of a person so aged that you could barely tell they were alive to start with. It came from a heavily cloaked and hunched person, so swathed in black clothing that James could barely make out a human figure under all the layers.
It raised a hand, which was bared to the cold, blue-veined and liver-spotted, and beckoned James nearer.
Wary after the hellish night he’d already had, James moved closer. “The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be?” he said. “You’re here to show me my future?”
The figure seemed to nod. It turned and pointed, and James saw a gravestone ahead. The earth freshly turned and piled beside the gaping hole that had been dug.
Swallowing faintly, James moved closer, leaving the ghost behind.
The grave was empty, just a deep, yawning black hole barely penetrated by what little light could penetrate the clouds. Belatedly, James realized that it was day, but the clouds were thick, the flat, iron grey of snow. A blizzard would be coming soon; he could smell its crisp scent.
James bent slightly, trying to see the letters on the stone, but it was blank except for three letters – R.I.P. Doesn’t anyone know whose grave this is? he wondered. Well, at least it didn’t bear his own name.
Not that anyone would bury a vampire.
The sound of approaching footsteps made him look up and he saw two men wheeling a small cart up the path. A body was sprawled in the cart, covered by a sheet. It looked rather small and forlorn. The men were moving quickly, taking turns pushing and blowing on their hands. They obviously wanted this unpleasant business done with.
“No one here to see this one off, eh?” one of them said as they approached the grave. “Not that I can blame ’em, what with the storm coming.”
“Nope, not a one. Hear he was just staying in that hotel in town the last few days. Was found dead in his room this morning.”
“So he’s a traveller then. No passport? No one he was with?” The first speaker seemed concerned, but in a vague way that told James he’d forget about it immediately once the subject was gone from his sight.
“Some say he arrived with someone, stayed with him, but he just up and left in the middle of the night. Probably killed the poor bastard and ran before he could be caught,” said the second man, taking a moment from his labours to turn to one side and spit.
He then leaned closer to his companion. James strained to hear his next words, which were spoken in a conspiratorial tone. “Heard tell that there was a lot of screaming coming from that room.”
The cart was wheeled right up to the edge of the hole. As one, the two men each grabbed one of the handles and tipped upwards. The body slid from its cradle and fell with a heavy thump, and as it fell, the shroud slipped from the face of the corpse.
James leaped forward with a cry, nearly jumping right down into the grave itself. He dropped to his knees and bent down, straining to catch another glimpse of the face he had seen.
Perhaps it was a lucky gap in the clouds, or James’ vampiric night sight, but he could easily see Sebastian’s waxy, pale face down at the bottom of the hole. The boy’s eyes were closed, and his face had a peaceful expression. But the dark, angry tear of an unhealed vampire bite stood out starkly on his throat.
The two men saw it, too, and they crossed themselves in unison. “You think a vampire really got into the hotel?” the first man said. “Isn’t it protected?”
“Are you stupid? A vampire can get in if you invite them,” the second man scoffed. “And this boy, he obviously invited him in, if you catch my meaning. I hear there was a party going on when they arrived. Lucky they aren’t all dead.”
“Gotta burn this one before he rises,” the first one commented. They were already unloading packs from their backs and setting them down. The contents were obviously heavy and sloshed. Lighter fluid, no doubt.
James was barely listening anymore. He sat at the edge of the grave, hands covering his face. So he was a monster after all, except that he’d chosen to give this boy – who deserved none of it, whose only crime had been poor judgement – a slow, lingering and painful death instead of the quick ones he’d given so many others.
A skeletal hand touched his shoulder and he looked up into the shrouded face. “Isn’t there anything I can do to stop this from happening?” he pleaded. “Is this future set in stone?”
The wraith shook its head, and pointed to the grave. The men were pouring lighter fluid down over the corpse of James’ lover.
The lover he would kill.
“No!” James hissed. He jumped to his feet, clenching his fists. “I won’t accept this! Sebastian deserves better than this. I’m not going to kill him!”
He turned his back on the ghost. Somewhere, he thought he heard a clock tolling. Three bells? Four? He couldn’t quite hear.
He strode away from the grave. “The future isn’t set,” he growled, as much to himself as to the ghost. “I won’t let this happen. I’ll change things, right now. Release me!”
It was quite dark in the room. The fire had been allowed to die down to nothing but glowing embers and dawn was still a ways away.
Not that far away, though. Even from the bed, Sebastian could see the sky had turned the deep purpleish black colour of predawn.
That meant…it was Christmas.
There was a winter chill in the room that the sad remains of the fire couldn’t hope to combat, but Sebastian stole out of the warm protection of his covers anyway. Today, for the first time since his family had been killed and he’d been left to fend for himself, he would be truly able to enjoy Christmas. Sure, he wasn’t expecting presents, but he would be warm and safe. Maybe James would even be willing to give him a little money, so he could get himself something.
A Christmas cake, maybe. That would be nice.
Sebastian’s toes curled as they touched the cold wooden floor, and he tiptoed across the room to the window. He leaned against the windowsill looking out, but there was no one yet up and about. Soon the sun would start to come up and he would have to close the curtains to protect his friend from the sun.
And while James slept, Sebastian would go out and enjoy the day. It was hard to contain his excitement.
He heard James shift in the chair, and a soft exhalation, and that spurred Sebastian to turn. “James!” he exclaimed, but then stopped in surprise. The vampire was slumped in the chair, asleep. Why was the vampire asleep in the middle of the night?
But Sebastian’s voice startled James out of his doze and he jerked upright. “What? Sebastian!” he exclaimed, looking around in startlement. Was that relief in his eyes? Why?
Sebastian moved away from the window, putting aside his confusion in favour of his enthusiasm. “It’s almost Christmas morning, James. I wonder if people got presents. Did you really sleep all night?”
James rose from his chair hastily. Outside, a clock began to toll six…no, seven chimes. Sebastian beamed, the sun would be coming up in less than half an hour.
“I…yes, I slept,” James said, shaking his head in a confused manner. Sebastian gazed at him perplexedly. What was wrong with him?
“Are you all right, James?” Sebastian asked uncertainly. “You’re acting weird.”
James opened his mouth, but seemed to think better of whatever he’d been about to say. “I’m going out,” he said abruptly, turning away and striding towards the door. On the way, he grabbed his hat.
“What? You can’t go out now, James,” Sebastian exclaimed. The sun was about to come up, how could he think of going out? “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t go anywhere,” James ordered him sharply. “I’ll be back.” He opened the door and paused, then glanced back. The expression on James’ face made Sebastian’s jaw drop – he looked…concerned, and kind. There was a reassuring smile playing about his lips. “Don’t worry, kid. I will be back soon.”
And with that he was gone, leaving Sebastian with his jaw still on the floor.
A moment later, Sebastian pulled himself together enough to rush to the window. He caught a glimpse of a dark figure exiting the inn and hurrying down the street. Where could he be going?
And why hadn’t he let Sebastian come with him?
Could he be leaving for good? Despite the front that Sebastian struggled to maintain, he was well aware that James had been reluctant to bring him along. That was why he had followed the vampire for weeks instead of simply asking to travel with him.
If he were going to run off, he wouldn’t do it now, Sebastian told himself. He could have left when I fell asleep. Now he’ll have to hole up somewhere until dawn.
But then…what is he doing? Is he sick?
That seemed far more likely. Why else would a vampire sleep the night away and then run recklessly outside right before dawn?
Worry rose up and nearly choked him, and Sebastian murmured a quick prayer that James would come back before dawn, safe and sound. Maybe God had forsaken vampires, but Sebastian still held onto a kernel of hope that He’d make an exception in this case.
But dawn came and the sun rose, the first rays setting the snow blanketing the ground and the roofs of the buildings to sparkle. Sebastian paced back and forth in front of the window, then finally left off to build up the fire again. But even though he added enough logs to build it to a merry crackle, the warmth couldn’t penetrate the ice in his stomach.
If James were going to come back, he should have done it by now. Now Sebastian certainly wouldn’t see him again until evening.
He was going to have to spend Christmas alone. Again. Somehow it hadn’t seemed so lonely to know that James would be asleep for the whole thing, but now that he was gone, it was a whole different thing.
Sebastian curled up in the chair where James had spent the night, wrapped in a blanket and staring into the fire. He could hear banging and chatter downstairs and smelled frying bacon. He closed his eyes and burrowed deeper into the blankets. All around the city, children were waking up and tearing open presents, exclaiming over their new toys and laughing. Parents were yawning and making themselves coffee, and exchanging their gifts while their children were still up to their elbows in paper.
But there was none of that for Sebastian. He didn’t even want to go out and watch, like he’d originally planned.
Suddenly the door banged open. James burst into the room, but threw up an arm to shield his face with a loud hiss. “Shut the goddamn curtains! What’s wrong with you?” Was it Sebastian’s imagination, or was smoke rising from James’ body?
Stunned, Sebastian merely obeyed. He scrambled from the chair and darted over to the window, pulling the curtains closed and cutting off the light of the sun.
He turned, his heart pounding from surprise, and a bit of fright. What was going on? “James! Where did you go? Why did you–”
“Stop asking questions!” James snapped, and Sebastian closed his mouth uncertainly, chewing on his lower lip.
James took a deep breath and ran a hand over his face. There were some red patches on his skin – burns? – but he paid them no mind, pulling off his hat and coat and casting them aside. “I’m sorry,” James said awkwardly. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. It was…it’s day.”
Sebastian let out the breath he’d been holding explosively. “Well, yeah,” he exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “You scared me to death, James, going out like that!”
The vampire wasn’t looking at him. Sebastian felt a frown furrow his own forehead as he watched the older man. He’d never seen him acting even remotely like this, and it worried him almost as much.
He moved across the room, and caught James’ hand, startling the vampire into meeting his eyes. “Let’s sit,” Sebastian said gently, gesturing towards the bed. “Then maybe you can tell me what’s gotten into you this morning.”
“Yes — no!” James said, tugging his hand free and picking up his coat again. For a horrible second, Sebastian thought he was going to throw it on and leave again, but he was just rooting through the pockets. “I have to – here, this is for you.”
A small box was shoved so suddenly and unexpectedly into Sebastian’s hands that the boy nearly dropped it.
The box was wrapped hastily, a few corners sticking out and the tape askew. There were no bows, and no label, but it was a present.
And it was for him.
Sebastian’s knees went weak and he sat down on the side of the bed quickly for fear that he would fall. “For…me?”
James shifted from foot to foot. “I…forgot to get you a present before,” he said. “And it’s hard to get things like that at night anyway. None of the stores are open.”
The mattress shifted and sagged as James sat down next to Sebastian. “Um…aren’t you going to open it?” he prompted.
That broke the spell just enough that Sebastian could move again. He looked up at James, feeling a brilliant smile spread across his face. “You really got me a present.”
“Looks like I did,” James said, impatience beginning to edge his voice. “Are you going to open it or not?”
“Of course I am,” Sebastian said, glancing down at the brightly-wrapped object in his hands. “I guess I…” he laughed, high and bright. “…I want to savour the moment.”
“Stop savouring and start opening,” James growled, but there was a grin on his face. He’s as excited as I am, Sebastian realized, and he grinned fiercely, grabbing the wrapping paper in both hands and tearing it from the box.
Inside was a pair of gold bracelets, each one set with a single blue stone. The solid gold bands were cut with an interesting geometric design. Sebastian stared at them in utter shock and amazement. Something so expensive and extravagant – just for him!
He floundered, picking up one of the precious pieces of jewellery and turning it over in his hand. “James, I…I can’t accept something like this!”
“What are you talking about?” James exclaimed. “Why not? What’s wrong with them?”
“Well I…they…they’re so expensive…” Sebastian stammered.
“Hogwash,” James growled. “You’ll accept them and you’ll wear them. Money isn’t the issue.”
Sebastian swallowed. “But…”
“They’re not just pieces of frippery, you know. Let me show you,” James went on, ignoring him and snatching the second bracelet out of the box.
He pressed his thumb down on the gem, then dropped the bracelet with a hiss and a short bout of swearing.
Startled, Sebastian bent down and looked at the bracelet. All over it, little bits of metal had popped out, each one in the shape of a tiny cross. It now looked more like a charm bracelet than the solid piece it had been before.
“Anti-vampire bracelets?” Sebastian breathed, bending down to pick it up. James leaned away a little and Sebastian quickly started snapping the little crosses back into place.
“Yeah,” James said. “Everyone knows about crosses, and vampires know how to get around them. But no one’ll expect that. If you keep hanging around with me, you’ll meet all kinds of vampires who aren’t gonna be as nice to you as I am.”
His lips thinned. “And you don’t hesitate to use them on me if you need to. Got it?”
Sebastian shook his head, slipping the two bracelets over his wrists. “There’s no need. I know you lose control sometimes, James, but I trust you. You’ll never go too far.”
James opened his mouth, clearly intending to object, but Sebastian leaned over and locked his arms around the vampire’s neck, silencing him with a soft kiss. “Just accept it, James,” he whispered. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
With a soft, rueful chuckle, James wrapped his arms around Sebastian’s waist and tugged him into his lap. “So it seems. Well, the bracelets are just the first step in coming to terms with that, I guess.”
“Exactly,” Sebastian said with a grin, and settled his head on James’ shoulder. Finally…it was finally happening. He could relax now. James wasn’t going to push him away after all.
But then a horrible thought struck him. “James,” Sebastian said, glancing up with sudden horror. “I didn’t get you anything!”
James smiled, and Sebastian felt his arms tighten around him. “That’s okay,” the vampire murmured. “I don’t need anything from you I don’t already get.”
Then his expression turned a bit sly. “Well, except maybe more of this.” He ducked his head down and stole a gentle, but passionate kiss – the first of many they shared on that bright Christmas morning.